» Stacking of Tolerances

Perhaps nothing has done more to solidify to me what a remarkable, thoughtful fandom this one is than the response to Love, Tolerance, and Other Myths from earlier this month.

It was a fairly straightforward concept—there were really just two points in it that I was trying to make, namely that 1) the “Love and Tolerance” meme is something created by the fan community to capture its own unique dynamic, and not something directly preached by the show; and that 2) the show’s message of friendship is centered on rather different principles—indeed, profoundly different—than many other shows that have more directly espoused “tolerance” as a theme.

Yet the response has been tremendously widespread and energetic, both to agree with it and in many cases to take issue with specific parts of the piece’s premise. All this feedback is invigorating, and a lot of it warrants some specific responses and clarifications. Yet ultimately what it’s told me, at a high level, is that the fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are a well-reasoned bunch of folks who genuinely relish the chance to apply some serious analysis to this inspiring, thought-provoking show.

Hit the break for more. I promise I’ll try to make this worth the read.

Dear Princess Celestia, You’ll never guess what I learned today…

What does “tolerance” mean, really?

It’s one of those words that has a loaded context in modern society. There are a lot of competing, loosely related meanings to it, and in a piece in which one of my main goals was to get fans of the show to carefully consider their definitions, I didn’t exactly spend any time defining the word as I planned to use it.

Commenter Hikargh:

The big disconnect for me with this article is that I don’t think “tolerance” means “accepting something unconditionally” at all. Tolerating someone does not automatically entail accepting all their flaws, or having to agree with them, but rather accepting them as people, accepting that they may have different viewpoints, and giving them the same respect that you would want from them. If someone does something bad, of course you should stand up for yourself; tolerating a person is not the same as tolerating an act, and one does not necessarily include the other.

I conflated the term as used by bronies with the same term as used by well-meaning politicians and parental activism groups, and in the process muddled my point. I hope I can rectify that here.

In the context of the infamous meme image and catchphrase—”I’m going to tolerate and love the shit out of you”—that has gained such currency as to appear on T-shirts worn by members of the show staff appearing on stage at Bronycon, “tolerance” is a rather unique construct. It’s being appropriated by bronies as a defense mechanism against those troublesome interlopers who would mock pony fans for their choice in entertainment. It’s this usage that dates back to the earliest days of the pony fandom, when surreptitious fans of the show faced real backlash over it in their Internet hangouts of choice. “Haters” and “trolls”, in those early months, before pony fandom had really taken root as a recognizable phenomenon with its own momentum and cultural footprint, enjoyed a target-rich environment in any forum thread full of pony avatars and meme images. It was all too easy to mock pony fans for their unashamed enjoyment of a “girly” cartoon. Out came their most biting sarcasm, their most dull-witted one-word epithets, and every intervening verbal and textual weapon that fell to hand. The pony fans wouldn’t know what hit them.

Yet the response that the pony fandom collectively invented was, as the phrase has since been canonized, “love and tolerance”. It was a statement of non-engagement, of refusal to escalate. Rather than responding to the trolls with defensiveness or invective or by fleeing the field, pony fans would meet trolls’ onslaught with smiles and an outstretched hand. Like the flower children of the 1960s putting daisies in soldiers’ gun barrels, bronies refused to meet violence (metaphorically speaking) with violence.

Some of us had bronies for parents.

Lo and behold, it worked—and therein, I’m sure, lies much of the pride that pony fans feel for the “Love & Tolerance” catchphrase, and the reason why many espouse it today, even knowing that it has little to nothing to do with the show itself. The trolls and the haters largely disappeared. Pony fans found their own hangouts, separating themselves from the communities that divided themselves along pony-neutral or pony-hostile lines, and forming pony-centric communities that effectively barred outsiders from having to confront the candy-colored equines to begin with. Bronies had their own self-sustaining community now, and there was no longer any need to clash with those who found them annoying. The only artifact of that era when such clashes were common was, in fact, the phrase “Love & Tolerance” itself. Small wonder that it, like a Che Guevara T-shirt, has outlived its original significance in many fans’ eyes.

It’s funny to think that a fandom that’s barely two years old is in a position to look back on its early days with such a sense of nostalgic indulgence.

With that meaning of the word tolerance established, however, let me now explain how I meant to apply it to the point at hand, namely the point that tolerance as envisioned by forum-dwelling bronies isn’t a theme that can be mined from some rich vein in the show itself.

Bronies meant tolerance to suggest an unwillingness to escalate a confrontation, a refusal to “feed the trolls”. It wasn’t meant to imply the word’s typical after-school-special meaning of “non-prejudice”, the one that makes modern consumers of culture roll their eyes at ham-handed attempts to instill kids with an aversion to racism and other forms of bigotry. These two meanings seemingly have little in common, and that’s at the root of a lot of the well-reasoned but pointed comments that the earlier piece received.

My intended meaning of tolerance is a little bit different from both these flavors. I take it, more generally, to mean this: Either you’re tolerating something, or you’re making sure there are consequences for it.

Hence my example of characters like Gilda and Trixie, whose behaviors are, indeed, intolerable. The position taken by the show in their cases is that the things they do don’t deserve to be received with indulgent understanding; the ponies shouldn’t just turn the other cheek and allow them to get away with their actions. Instead, they react. They escalate. They take a stand against people and actions they find unworthy of their standards, and unlike the bronies in the forums and their flower-child forebears, they use every weapon in their usually slapstick-comic arsenal, pulling no punches and sticking to their message that true friendship must be earned and deserved. On some other show, a group hug might have melted Gilda’s heart and turned her into a friend to all Ponyville; but that’s not FiM’s style.

To be sure, the show is full of examples of what anyone would be justified in calling tolerance. But that’s just it: very nearly any show on TV has those kinds of elements in it, to one degree or another—especially among shows aimed at kids. One of the nearly obligatory features of a prospective kids’ show is a diverse ensemble of characters from wildly different backgrounds, all getting along together and demonstrating the inherent value of looking past one another’s differences to appreciate the unique people they all are and how they contribute to each other’s well-being and happiness. In that regard, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is all but archetypical of the genre. (When has there been another show whose heterogeneous central cast formed such a tight bond that not only did it form the namesake of the show itself, it inspired untold thousands of adult fans to fall in love with the very idea of friendship being literally a form of magic?) Yet you could easily say the same of any of dozens of other shows, many of which are on the air right now—Pound Puppies, Winx Club, Strawberry Shortcake’s Berry Bitty Adventures. Those are every bit as much about social, friendly tolerance as Pony is. But something makes Pony rather fundamentally different—different enough that the interactions of the ponies in the cast inspires us all to frequent Tumblr blogs and DeviantArt galleries and dedicated pony discussion forums in an insatiable quest for more, more, more of these characters. There’s something about this show, beyond the characters themselves, that seems downright novel.

Which brings me to my second point.

No, the show is not about prejudice and hatred either

Some readers have taken issue with my statement that FiM is decidedly not about tolerance—that it is, indeed, very nearly about its opposite. Now, I want to be clear about what I’m saying here, because this is an easily misinterpreted position.

My argument is that Pony is designed along very different lines from what the status quo of children’s entertainment had become in recent years—after all, that’s a big part of Lauren Faust’s stated goal for the show, creating a whole new status quo for entertainment aimed at girls. She wasn’t satisfied with what was on the air when she was growing up, and she knew all along that she could do better. The adventures of her own plastic pony toys in her bedroom were testament enough to that. But while Faust was fortunate enough (or tenacious enough) to parlay the exercises of her own youthful imagination into an opportunity to turn them into a real, live cartoon funded by a real, live entertainment company, we all know innately where she was coming from. We all had toys based on licensed properties whose TV incarnations left something to be desired, and we filled in the gaps from our own minds, drawing on our own schoolyard adventures. We enriched the stories behind our favorite fictional characters by giving them our own fanciful backstories. We gave them our own voices in our heads and our own invented motivations that had no basis in their corporate-established canon. We set them against each other in nonsensical pitched battles spanning whatever fictional universes were represented in our disorganized toychests and closets.

My brother and I maintained a years-long narrative centered on two of the Battle Beasts (the Beaver and the Bat) and a lone and unidentified G.I. Joe figure, whom we recast as a contentious nuclear family of circus freaks who built (out of LEGO) a technological monstrosity of a mountain base and recruited a ragtag army of other miscellaneous toys with which to fight against the evil M.U.S.C.L.E. men.

…Come on. I know it wasn’t just us who did stuff like this.

Hank Venture and Henchman 21, pitting Quisp and a bust of He-Man against the Micronauts, would have understood.

All this ill-advised soul-baring has a point. It’s that one thing all this chaotic mishmashing we all did as kids with our reappropriated corporate properties has in common is that we added conflict.

Conflict is at the heart of good character development. We all have understood this innately, just as Lauren Faust did when envisioning her ponies from their 80s-TV roots into something altogether more vibrant and fun in her own mind. And when she translated those characters and stories from her own imagination into the TV show we all know, she kept that conflict intact.

Critically, I’m not talking about the kind of fairy-tale antagonism that unites bands of adventurers in opposition to some monstrous villain in a dark tower. I’m talking about real conflict here, the kind that real people struggle with every day as part of their jobs and social lives. Personality clashes. Prejudice. Jealousy. Inadequacy. Arrogance. The kinds of ingredients that add texture to interactions between real people; the kinds of things we only become familiar with through the social encounters that begin in grade school. Some of these things we eventually learn to live with; others we fight with our whole lives. But they all contribute to what makes us all such different people—and what makes some kinds of “diversity” different from others.

Some differences, we learn, should be tolerated, even embraced. Others, however—not so much.

Whereas plenty of shows that more baldly adopt terms like “tolerance” among their stated values generally tend to do so with broad, bland illustrations of people in a group learning to get along with each other by overcoming their irrational prejudices and recognizing the unique value each of them adds, FiM makes its characters go through a generally more nuanced and uneven process. At the end of this process might stand acceptance of some character and his or her quirks, or it might turn out that such a character is irredeemable and can’t—shouldn’t—be tolerated.

This is what I believe is novel about FiM as a children’s show, and ultimately why tolerance is a silly and reductive badge to pin to it. The characters are just as likely to not tolerate some new interloper as to welcome him or her into their circle; and the choice they make as likely as not turns out to be a mistake. The stories these ponies tell are all different in their own way, and the characters they meet represent a broad range of tolerability (for lack of a better word)—from the repugnant behavior of the teenage dragons in “Dragon Quest” to the misunderstood wisdom of the mysterious but benevolent Zecora or the well-intentioned Princess Luna and her atrophied social graces; from the ambivalently irredeemable Gilda and Trixie to the bombastic but ultimately benign form of therapy offered by Iron Will (poor guy’s just trying to make a living). Even the fake changeling Princess Cadance is an object lesson in how too much tolerance, too much giving someone the benefit of the doubt, can lead to ruin; if it weren’t for Twilight’s seemingly irrational prejudice against her brother’s new fiancée and her ambiguously suspicious behavior, Canterlot would have fallen, its inhabitants made the prey of Queen Chrysalis and her army of love-vampires. All because every pony except Twilight was just too tolerant.

I’m going to tolerate and love the shit out of you—
or perhaps I won’t

All these examples are to illustrate that yes, there’s tolerance on display in Friendship is Magic—but not because it’s some banner virtue that the show seeks to drive home over and over. Rather, it’s seen in the show with just about the same frequency with which it becomes relevant in the real world—as an ingredient in mature social behavior, not a principle to override all others. The show isn’t trying to tell kids to tolerate people who are different, any more than it’s telling them to eat their vegetables or not to accept candy from strangers. These are lessons that might come up from time to time, sure, just like an episode might end with a letter to Princess Celestia extolling the virtues of empathy or of compromise or of you and your friends being connected since childhood by a mystical Sonic Rainboom. But to say that tolerance is a message that runs through the canon like some kind of fundamental premise-level theme is to miss the point of the show entirely, and to relegate it to a category of oversimplified, predictable kids’ TV entertainment whose lame company it simply doesn’t deserve.

Commenter Cole Daigneault says:

All that being said, I think that the author’s main point was that this form of tolerance is a very poor description for a show that in actuality is entirely against such dystopian silence. The author wanted to point out that the motto was never meant to describe the show, but became something that did, at least to outsiders. This misrepresentation makes it easy for journalists who know absolutely nothing about the show or its community coming in to think that the only reason any of us like the show is for this old, overused, unremarkable reason that’s been done countless times before. This has a negative effect on the brony community because in the journalist’s eyes, this eliminates the possibility that our passion comes from any merit the show itself has, and that therefore the truth must be that there must be something wrong with bronies that makes us like the show.

That’s exactly right. All I’m doing here is expressing some dismay at the idea that a “Love & Tolerate” T-shirt might come to be symbolic of bronies and, through the work of well-meaning journalists and documentarians like Michael Brockhoff, the show itself. While it might sound like a fine thing that the general public comes to think that we legions of fans are congregating around a My Little Pony show because it’s about wholesome messages like love and tolerance, it’s just not convincing. It’s weak sauce. It implies that we could have fallen for any show that espoused these values, which clearly isn’t the case.

Ultimately it sends a misleading message that undermines bronies’ perceived coherence. To put it another way: how much can you trust the word of someone who says he supports some sports hero or actor or activist because he “fights for what he believes in”? Wouldn’t that make him equally a fan of some of history’s greatest monsters?

Let’s make sure the media coverage of the brony phenomenon focuses on the show as much as on the fans—if only to try to convey with appropriate depth why it is that we enjoy it so much. Deep down, I’m sure we all know that if it’s a reason that can fit on a T-shirt, it’s not a good enough reason. 

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  1. Pingback: Love, Tolerance, and Other Myths | The Round Stable

  2. Thanks for this Headless. Eloquently put and a lot of good examples to back up your argument. I don’t think this will get the same response your first piece did but I still appreciate the different perspective that we almost never see because the usual mindset of people seems to be to fight any differing notion about the catch phrase instead of thinking about what it means and how others outside of the show perceive us because of it.

    Well done.

  3. Excellent piece, Headless. Media outlets love reducing the strange or unfamiliar to short, 2-second soundbites because it makes it easier to slot those stories in as “human interest” between major news stories. It promotes the erosion of critical thinking skills, or indeed any thinking at all. Why bother trying to puzzle out why adults would watch My Little Pony if they can be categorized as just another bunch of weirdos like Trekkies or Star Wars fans?

    You’ve done a great job of explaining exactly why this sort of reductionism should be called out. Thank you.

  4. A lot of good points here. I feel there is a much bigger picture as to why “MLP: FiM” is so popular. Indeed, “Love and Tolerance” is too simple an answer as to why. There are two questions that really need to be asked:

    1. What sets this show apart from the others (i.e the shows you mentioned) that has drawn such a large and diverse audience?

    If similar messages can be found within “Pound Puppies,” “Care Bears,” or “Strawberry Shortcake,” then why aren’t they drawing the numbers that “FiM” is.

    2. What is it about this particular show that has led to things from suicides being prevented, overcoming depression, kicking vices, etc.?

    I’ve not heard the story of how “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” led to things like this let alone an animated program.

    Again, there is a bigger picture as to why “MLP: FiM” is setting itself apart from the rest of the field.

  5. A very clarifying read and more engaging and convincing than the first article in the so-far two-volume saga. My only contention is the assumption, also present in the previous article, that bronies are bronies solely or almost solely due to the inherent quality of the show.

    In my mind, the brony community/subculture/fandom—and this last term is key—has a number of qualities similar to other fandoms. First, and most importantly, an almost unerring devotion to the piece of media they have decided to be fans of. We know from experience that there are fandoms around practically any cultural product ever made in the context of modern popular media, regardless of quality or unique charm. This is evident in the kind of hyperbole that bronies, just like other fandoms, frequently engage in.

    Second, that the fandom, for a not unimportant number of individuals, is just as much or perhaps even more about the social experience and the cultural production that are a consequence exclusively of the fandom, i.e. some fans are not exclusively “into the show” so much as into the fandom itself and its related activities and products. For these (perhaps marginal) members of the fandom, Love and Tolerance™ is in fact representative of their experience in the fandom so much so that it becomes a motto worthy of being printed on shirts.

    Finally, unrelated to the previous two and as we’ve seen from responses to your first article, there are many fans who have simply understood the show differently or may hold different definitions of the relevant working terms, so that, for them, Love and Tolerance™ is indeed the most important and relevant message that the show instills.

    Aside from these contentions, I do believe that the emergence and spread of bronies was—and continues to be—much more rapid and fervent than that of the vast majority of fandoms, and that the unique qualities of the show as compared to other shows in the same playing field have played a part in this. It’s to be expected that such a vast phenomenon will have many more factors at play than is readily apparent, and perhaps we should be looking at the sociological characteristics of the brony phenomenon for a more comprehensive understanding.

  6. I’m glad that people are beginning to speak out against the perception that Bronies (or, indeed, all members of the Pony Fandom – but that distinction is a different can of worms) are all about the “love and tolerance”.

    I was in it way back at the start, when we had the MLPGs on /co/. The “I’m going to tolerate and love the shit out of you” thing originated on the /b/ social threads rather than the /co/ show threads (/co/, for all its flaws, has yet to see an accepted gore bomb go down), but it quickly spread to us, if not in the same forthright fashion.

    You mention how funny it is that a fandom only two years young could look back at itself with nostalgia. I can only agree — I find it both hilarious and slightly shocking that I consider those “early months, before pony fandom had really taken root as a recognizable phenomenon with its own momentum and cultural footprint” to be the absolute best times of all, and that the backlash and the hatred we received were actually one of the reasons for that!

    I remember finding Ponychan.net and wondering exactly what it was that was putting me off. After some thought, I came to a conclusion. It’s too… vanilla. It’s bland. Going to there after living life on the high seas of 4chan was like eating at a giant Thai buffet and then downgrading to banana-flavour baby paste.

    If you want to ask this salty old dog why love and toleration has survived way past its use-by date, then I would have to blame the separation from the barbarian horde which you mentioned in the article.

    Trolling is good for the health of a fandom. It drives away stupid people. Without the trolls, what we at 4chan would call “the cancer” spreads, and quickly. Almost without fail, the people I’ve seen to preach Love and Toleration are the kind of people who only want it to apply to themselves — “You should love and tolerate Me, even though I don’t have to love and tolerate You.”

    Pony is a bandwagon to these people. All of the drama that happens, all of the stupid arguments… it happens because these are people who crave attention at all costs, and propagated Love and Tolerance far beyond its original intention in order to gain that attention. Not that I’m saying it’s a conspiracy or something. There was no group of people that met in the fortress of doom one day and decided to do it. But all of these people, individually, saw the opportunity and took advantage of it, and it just added up.

    I feel like an elf in the Lord of the Rings when I think about the days when it was just a single thread on a single imageboard and compare it to what we have now. Even on 4chan we’ve been separated and the cancer is spreading. Just like the inhabitants of Lothlórien, I’m trying to cling to the past using smaller imageboards, BBS’s and forums. Just like the inhabitants of Lothlórien, I know it’s a losing battle. Unlike the inhabitants of Lothlórien, I’ve got no magical land to flee too at the end.

    I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say at this point. I’m just writing what I feel. My pony fandom is almost dead, and all I can do is hide in the forests and wait for it to happen.

  7. excellent article,i used to dislike any kind of “over-analysis” regarding the FiM issue because i used to think that “is just a show,stop analyzing every single detail and just enjoy it!” but this is a good analysis…of some aspects of the show and the fandom.

    please continue with the excellent articles HH

  8. Great article. I was impressed with your first on the subject, and i think this extra clarification does it all the more justice. Well done.

  9. Great elaboration to the original article. This pretty accurately sums up my feelings on the subject. Great work.

  10. How have I not found this article sooner! I have struggled with the quickness of some bronies to cry “love and tolerance” when faced with any sort of opposing argument or disagreement. I’ve also found some bronies apparently blind devotion and adherence to the phrase a bit concerning.

  11. Perhaps in the start it might not have been explicitly about “love and tolerance”, but in Keep Calm and Flutter On, Fluttershy loved and tolerated the shit out of Discord…

    • It’s not so weird then that I found such episode (as well as others from season 3) a bit disquieting. Like a return to a blander formula.